The term “style” can also be referred to as the filmmaker’s voice: the way a filmmaker sees the world, his or her own unique perspective on life, and perspective on story. However, you should never set out to achieve a style. Set out to achieve the telling of a story and make the proper choices that serve the telling of the story best. This is a trap most beginning filmmakers fall into. We admire other directors’ styles and we set about imitating them. This is a terrible thing to do; not necessarily because it’s cribbing from others before you, but because it’s a sure sign that you are forsaking your story for style. Ultimately, the story dictates the style of the film, not the other way around.
CASE STUDY: PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON
Paul Thomas Anderson is a great example of a filmmaker whose style is constantly evolving and therefore cannot be summarily defined. On the basis of style alone, if you compare “Boogie Nights” to “Punch-Drunk Love” to “There Will Be Blood,” you will be hard-pressed to determine that the same director made all three films. Each film looks as though someone else directed it.
On the surface, “Boogie Nights” is a melting pot of shots and techniques reminiscent of those employed in the films of Scorsese, De Palma and, to a lesser extent, Tarantino. The end of “Boogie Nights” is a direct homage to the end of “Raging Bull” (which is itself an homage to “On the Waterfront”).
The point is: “Boogie Nights” is absent of a style that is uniquely “Anderson”—at least a style that Anderson can call completely his own. Anderson seems to find his voice, and gets close to the heart of his character(s), in the house robbery scene toward the end of the film. He juxtaposes an incredibly chaotic environment—Russian Roulette, firecrackers in the air, Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” blasting on the stereo—with an extraordinarily long close-up of Mark Wahlberg, playing Dirk, as he absorbs the situation. While the static form of the shot contrasts with the disorder unfolding around him, his performance intimates that he’s dealing with an even greater chaos inside of his own mind. At the conclusion of the scene, it becomes clear that Dirk must extricate himself from the disorder his life has become in order to harness the emotional stability he needs.
In this scene, Anderson begins to touch on a theme that he will revisit in every one of his movies—a consistent definable theme that he explores differently in each film.
“Punch-Drunk Love”: Finding Order Amidst Chaos
Anderson seems less concerned with achieving a consistent style in his work than about telling a specific story the way he thinks the story is meant to be told.
In “Punch-Drunk Love,” Anderson depicts his character embarking on a veritable journey from chaos to order and harmony. Barry’s inner life is pure chaos. He is a seething cauldron of male inadequacy, debilitating insecurities and uncontrollable anger. Anderson expresses his character’s inner turmoil outwardly through his camera, his lighting, his actor’s physical movement, his sets/production design, his costumes, his props, and his sound (score and onscreen sounds). His style verges on symbolism (e.g., the “harmonium” that arrives at Barry’s front door in the middle of a horrendous car crash). The need for harmony in Barry’s life—symbolically represented by the harmonium—is manifested physically by his love interest: Lena.
The arc of Barry’s character is defined by his decision to leave his chaotic world, which he’s grown complacent living within, and take his life in another direction as he follows Lena to Hawaii. In doing so, he is pursuing, and consequently achieving, the harmony his life has been craving. This is, appropriately, the midpoint of the film— the moment in a movie when the main character often chooses to take a path he cannot return from (point of no return).
“The Master”: Using Repetition
Anderson’s film “The Master” is yet another departure from the previous styles he’s established. (It resembles “There Will Be Blood” more than the others.) However, his theme—order amidst chaos— is still very much at play.
The tangible symbolism that was present in “Punch-Drunk Love” is mostly gone from “The Master.” Anderson combines form and style by employing repetition (repetition of shots, of sounds, of dialogue) to advance his story about a burgeoning religious cult leader named Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who, on the surface, attempts to help Joaquin Phoenix’s troubled young man get control of his life. Dodd uses repetition—the seemingly endless repetition of questions and exercises that are masked as therapy—to break his followers, much in the same way interrogators seek to break their subjects.
Anderson emphasizes this repetition not only through dialogue, but also with images and sounds throughout the film (example: the motif of waves/the sea). The repetition provides subtext: Dodd’s “religion” purports that we have all lived endless, repeated lives, and that to this day we carry the burdens of our past lives’ traumas. Our curse is that we’re unaware of our past lives, and therefore unaware of the traumas that still subconsciously burden us. Dodd uses this as the linchpin of his religion: he has the answers, and his followers must do what he says to alleviate themselves of their burdens and come to grips with their past lives.
Furthermore, the idea of repetition that is inherent in this religion is made manifest in the characters themselves: Dodd is seen inhabiting a different opulent home (a yacht, a southern mansion, a grand European estate) in each act of the film. It’s not until halfway through the film that we realize these are not his homes. Just like the traumas/spirits that inhabit our bodies over and over again, Dodd, the con man, grifts his way into other believers’ homes and takes over in parasitic fashion. We get the sense that he will continue on this way—finding new places and followers, getting kicked out, and taking his “show” elsewhere, over and over again.
Arguably, the fundamental principle of religion is finding order (albeit, a higher one) amidst the chaos of the world. The religion in “The Master” is no different. Repetition can often invoke the appearance and/or feeling of “order,” but the mere repetition of words and ideas is no substitute for the meaning itself.
Freddie (Phoenix) is a typical lost soul looking for meaning; however, the repetition of Dodd’s words and the exercises he is made to perform ultimately do not cure what ails him. Like Barry in “Punch-Drunk Love,” Freddie is afflicted with chaos, but he does not find his order, his harmony, through Dodd’s religion—even though that is exactly what Dodd promises: harmony of the soul.
The ending of “The Master” implies that Freddie is finally on his way to finding harmony after he puts the religion behind him. Perhaps this is something he realizes he must find himself…or perhaps never even find at all, for to find it is an impossibility.
Before you consider style, you must consider theme, because it’s the theme that will ultimately dictate the style. For more on the importance of theme, check out my book, DETOUR: Hollywood – How To Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter).
William Dickerson received his Master of Fine Arts in Directing from The American Film Institute. He is a writer and director whose debut feature film, “Detour,” was hailed as an “Underground Hit” by The Village Voice, an “emotional and psychological roller-coaster ride” by The Examiner, and nothing short of “authentic” by The New York Times. He self-released his metafictional satire, “The Mirror,” which opened YoFi Fest’s inaugural film festival in 2013. He recently completed his third feature, “Don’t Look Back.” His award-winning work has been recognized by film festivals across the country. His first book, “No Alternative,” was declared, “a sympathetic coming-of-age story deeply embedded in ‘90s music” by Kirkus Reviews. His latest book, “DETOUR: Hollywood: How To Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter),” is available now. He currently serves on AFI’s Alumni Executive Board and is a Faculty Member at the New York Film Academy.